Most of the world's cobalt production is extracted in Congo-Kinshasa. Photo: Enough Project. Source: Flickr.


Cobalt - a tricky road to sustainable transport

The extraction of the minerals cobalt and lithium has increased in connection with the demand for electric cars. Several companies are interested in opening mines in northern Sweden, something that risks threatening the Sami right to land and culture. At the same time, multinational mining companies are exploiting child labor and violating human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world's largest exporter of cobalt.

Most of world cobalt production is extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in mines operated by foreign mining companies from, for example, China. In the mines, child labor and human rights violations are common. Children as young as seven work in some of the mines, according to Amnesty report. The development magazine has previously reported that workers have been buried alive in the mines and that many lack basic protective equipment in their work.

The media debate about the extraction of cobalt focuses primarily on social issues such as child labor, says Clara My Lernborg, who is another embassy secretary in Kinshasa and a former doctoral student in matters of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at the Stockholm School of Economics. Secondly, the media debate has focused on environmental issues. She believes that it has motivated battery manufacturers to mine cobalt in Sweden instead and to recycle cobalt from batteries and catalysts, but under sustainable conditions.

Swedish minerals would not meet demand despite meeting environmental requirements

In Skellefteå builds Northvolt a factory that will store energy and manufacture batteries that can be used in electric cars. The factory will be one of Europe's largest factories and provide many jobs, but the batteries also require lithium. The mineral lithium is found, among other things in Congo and in the so-called “lithum triangle” in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Demand for lithium and other minerals such as cobalt has increased in connection with the increasing electric car sales. Congo accounts for almost 60 percent of the world's cobalt production, but cobalt has also been invented different places in Sweden - in Venafältet in Bergslagen and Kiskamavaara in Kiruna.

- At present, there is no commercial extraction of cobalt in Sweden, says Clara My Lernborg.

The mining company Beowulfs Mining plans to extract cobalt, lithium and graphite outside Jokkmokk, but in that case they will share space with reindeer grazing land and stop traditional reindeer husbandry. And Mineral extraction in Sápmi - in the upper half of Norrbotten - has worried the Sami because it takes place on land that contains large the world of environment, nature and culture.

Business lawyer Camilla Wiklund, who has worked with Sami rights for more than 20 years and represented Sami villages, says that she has respect for focusing on environmental issues abroad, but believes that one must look at environmental degradation in Sweden as well.

- In southern Sweden, people have been negative about wind power, but positive about having it in Norrland because there is plenty of space and that it would not affect us so much, she says.

"Politicians and state-owned companies have a responsibility to include all aspects"

Camilla Wikland believes that there is a strong argument for acting for the environment, but that companies lack an understanding that reindeer land is already difficult to exploit. If you open a mine in an area, a disturbance zone of about one mile is affected.

- International companies are a little better at taking minorities and human rights into account than Swedish state-owned companies. The state should really be the best, but they have been criticized by the UN Convention for not respecting the Sami rights, says Camilla Wikland.

The Sami Parliament has also highlighted the weight of demanding mining tax and giving dividends to the local population and the local community because otherwise it would attract the exploitation of the land and be able to utilize the minerals cheaply. They are afraid of what will happen when the mining ceases due and if the companies will then clean up after themselves. The UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights has stated that encroachment on indigenous peoples' property rights to land that only serves private profit interests seldom constitutes a legitimate societal interest.

- If the indigenous people are to take precedence over child labor in the Congo, it is difficult to answer, but one must not forget to argue for Sami rights. Politicians and state-owned companies have a responsibility to include all aspects, or to be honest and say that they exclude the indigenous people, says Camilla Wikland. 

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